Tuesday, May 24, 2022

BAPTIST BITES: John Smyth and the English Separatists

The next step in our journey to understand how Baptists came to be and believe as they do takes us to the English Separatists in the late 16th-17th centuries.  We will see that our Anabaptist forebears continue to play a role in this journey, but Baptists themselves came into being through the leadership of John Smyth and his friend, Thomas Helwys.  This time we’ll focus our camera on Smyth, looking into Helwys’ role next month.

John Smyth was born around the year 1570. As a young man he graduated from Cambridge in 1593 and a candidate for ministry in the Church of England. He was appointed to preach in the city of Lincoln, England in 1600, but already by 1603 he was removed from office. It seems he was very boldly preaching ideas which did not conform to the doctrine of the Anglicans. In short, he was on the road to becoming a Separatist.

The Separatists believed that the Church of England needed to be further purified from unscriptural beliefs and practices they’d retained from the Roman Catholics.  You may have heard of the Puritans; that group believed that these impurities could be cleansed from within the church. The Separatist sect was more radical. They saw a big problem with the Church of England: it was established and controlled by the State. That made it impossible to purge or preserve it from corruption. Separatists were convinced that the only workable solution was to break away entirely, to preach the Word of God exactly as it is written, free of manipulation from church hierarchies or political corruption.  In this you’ll see major components of Baptist belief: our firm belief in separation of Church and State, as well as insistence on the Word of God as our only authority for belief and practice.

After his removal from the parish at Lincoln, John Smyth went back to his home town of Gainsborough, England.  There, he was quickly appointed pastor of a Congregational church.  Under his teaching, the whole congregation at Gainsborough adopted Separatist views. But they quickly came under persecution from the new King of England, James I (of King James Bible fame). He immediately set out to crack down on the Separatists, declaring that “I will make them conform themselves, or I will have them out of the land.” Pastor Smyth, accompanied by fellow church leader Thomas Helwys, fled England with their whole congregation of about 50 believers in 1607. They traveled to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a country renowned for its religious freedom. There Smyth pastored his little, refugee congregation. As they pursued their course of study and reform, this would become history’s first Baptist congregation.

As Smyth and Helwys continued to study, they took up the question of who is scripturally qualified to be church members. Smyth grew convicted that the true church is only composed of those who have responded to the Gospel with repentance and faith and have testified to their new life in Christ through believer’s baptism.  They were convinced that infant baptism is not taught in the Bible. Of course, this is the main doctrine that forms the identity of Baptists to this day.  And the idea of “regenerate church membership,” only true Christians as members, is still cherished by us.

Other beliefs that Smyth set forth included two-fold church leadership, with pastors (elders) and deacons as the pattern set forth in the New Testament.  Even those officers would be accountable to the members. Financial support of the church should come only from the church membership—the State should not fund the Church in anyway, because with funding comes control. All of this continues to make up our spiritual DNA as Baptists.

With his new beliefs concerning Baptism, what was Smyth to do? His church was not part of a denominational body which practiced believer’s baptism.  How could they be properly baptized, then? He could think of only one course, and Helwys agreed.  Smyth first baptized himself in front of them all, after recounting his testimony and setting forth his beliefs.  Then, all the other members of the church were baptized as believers.  Note that this was a baptism by affusion, or pouring. Immersion wasn’t yet on their radar, but of course that would come with time. 

Smyth and Helwys led their church as it congregated in a meeting house rented from a local congregation of Mennonites. They found they were in close harmony with these Anabaptists on many things.  They formed deep friendships and conversations with them, and it was the Mennonites that convinced Smyth and Helwys to turn away from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (more on that when we look at Helwys next month).

As they fellowshipped with their Mennonite friends, however, doubts were raised about whether it was legitimate for Smyth to have baptized himself.  It was suggested to him that true baptism should be administered from a church with historic succession over the generations. For good or bad, Smyth was an impressionable man, and he agreed that he’d been in error.  He, along with the majority of the congregation, applied for membership with the Mennonite church.

Helwys, however, parted ways with Smyth at this point. Along with eight or ten other members, they maintained that baptism was solely an expression of one’s personal faith and testimony—historic succession was unnecessary. They broke from Smyth’s group and continued as the “true” first Baptist church in Amsterdam.  As the mainstream of Baptist history continues with Helwys’ group, we will follow their story with the next article.

As you read this article, I trust you saw that several points of Baptist faith came together quickly through the ministry of John Smyth. Though he and Helwys had a falling-out, Smyth’s studies in God’s Word made a tremendous contribution to who we are today.  I hope you continue to find this survey to be helpful, and that you’ll have a firmer sense of footing in your own identity as a Baptist.

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